What Makes Good Brands 'Good'

On April 10th of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg began his two-day testimony in front of Congress. He was there to help legislators better understand the gravity of data breaches and the ease with which our personal information can be used to harm the country via Facebook. Since then, Facebook has launched a new brand campaign promising to make things right by refocusing on protecting its users. After a year of intense criticism and missteps, Facebook is on an apology tour.

How did we get here? Zuckerberg has pledged to give away his entire fortune. His charity organization has given to groups like the Reach Every Reader program and the Newark Public Schools. Sheryl Sandberg encouraged us all to Lean In and ushered in a new era of women’s workplace empowerment. The noble personal efforts of these leaders highlight an important truth: it is very hard for companies to be good.

Rising tensions within the country are placing pressure on companies to pick sides. 66% of consumers want their brands to take a stand on social issues and 33% of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they think are making a positive impact. Marketers are responding with an increase in Cause Marketing. But, how do we know companies are sincere in their claims and not just faking it?

There are three things that we can look at to determine the authenticity of a company’s socially conscious messages and acts. A truly good company may not possess all of these traits, but at least two will hold true.

1. The company was born making a difference. In 1957, Yvon Chouinard started Chouinard Equipment, a mountain climbing gear company that was committed to serving elite climbers. Chouinard and his friends regularly climbed in Wyoming and at Yosemite. The young climbers were pioneers in “clean” climbing, eschewing the use of iron spikes as anchors in favor of techniques that preserved the environment. The team created innovative products to support this new sport and the business became a hit. In 1970, the company expanded its apparel line and changed its name to Patagonia.

Over the years, Patagonia has spearheaded clothing recycling programs, donated $80 mil+ to environmental groups and started Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform that informs people of local environmental activism opportunities. So when Patagonia ran an ad that said, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” and vowed to help people repair or recycle old garments, we knew it wasn’t a marketing ploy. It was a sincere message that aligned with everything we know them to be.

2. The cause and the business are intertwined. Companies that truly care about a social issue tie that cause to their business. Whether the causes are new or old, they align to their values, products, marketing and employee programs. And, they maintain their commitment over long periods of time. This consistency maximizes the positive impact and makes the cause a seamless part of the company’s brand identity.

Warby Parker was founded in 2010 to provide affordable glasses to everyone who needs them. As part of its mission, the team works with VisionSpring to ensure that for each pair of glasses sold, a pair is distributed to someone in need. Because of the connection to its business, every marketing campaign reinforces this commitment and helps to increase the impact. To date, the company has distributed 4 mil free glasses to people all over the world.

3. They do the right thing. The gold standard for ethical business decisions is the Johnson & Johnson cyanide scare. In September of 1982, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced extra-strength Tylenol capsules sold in five Chicago stores. The company spent $100 mil to recall 31 mil bottles of Tylenol from every corner of the US, not just the affected Chicago area. As a part of the effort, they set-up a hotline and offered free replacement product in a safer tablet form. Two months later, they re-launched the entire product line in tamper proof containers. CEO James Burke’s swift action saved lives and upheld their credo, “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” A year later, the company regained 70% of its lost market share and the trust of consumers.

When confronted with difficult choices, good companies favor their conscience ahead of the bottom line. After all, it is easy to make ethical decisions when nothing is at stake. You learn what brands, and people, are all about when the choices are hard.

The real truth about brands always bears out. Good companies may make mistakes, but they will always find their way back to who they really are. Because at the center of every brand are the true values that drive all decisions in a company. These values can be explicitly stated, but a lot of times they are not. We may only see the truth in how they treat employees, design products, manage vendors, select new hires, align with causes, market their brand and tackle challenges.

Over the coming months and years, as Mr. Zuckerberg and his team decide how to move forward, we will all see whether Facebook is sincere in its efforts to be a good company or if it is faking it. One thing is for sure, we will all be able to tell the difference.

- Lisel Welden